I have a startling confession to make. I got into MMA because of Jean-Claude Van Damme, not just because of his ballerina kicks and the ability to deliver cheesy one-liners and do the splits, but because of the movie Bloodsport. It’s been so long now that I can barely remember the exact details of the movie—like which actor played the cop that chased him across the boats, what color the female lead’s frizzy hair was, or what the biker guy’s T-shirt said, but none of that matters really. What matters is how the movie made me FEEL. As a child of the 1980s and adolescent of the early 1990s, you couldn’t avoid the corny-copia of ridiculous martial arts movies that ruled the time period. And with a young impressionable mind, you could not help but get brainwashed by the heroic violence that took place in these works of fantasy. In many ways, I owe my whole career to them, but also as my career has gone on, I had the horrible walls of reality crash down upon my kung-fu fantasies.
The first one was actual fighting. I think I’ve told the story of my first MMA experience a million times, and I’ll quickly rehash it once again, since I’ve got an article to write. Even the short version chips away at my much-needed word count, plus I always leave a detail out that applies here. I was about 16 years old, and my best friend at the time—a smaller, nerdier (at the time) guy named Pierre—showed me tapes of early UFCs and Vale Tudo Brazil. After some bravado and bantering, I proclaimed that I could for sure do this sport, using the logic that “I’ve been in tons of street fights” and “karate is bullshit,” so “I can fight good enough already,” which ironically, is the rationale that every bully on Bully Beatdown uses. After being challenged to a sparring match by this dork of a pal, I accepted, went into my back yard on the mat that I was practicing my breakdancing on, and we squared off. Now, looking back, I realize the first mistake I made.
Around this same time, a movie came out on TV called Only the Strong—I never saw it in the theaters. If you know this movie, you know what I’m talking about—the cliché tale of a teacher going to a ghetto school and making everyone a positive person through accepting them for who they are and an awesome montage. But the twist: instead of football or actually learning, he teaches them how to fight! Well, not exactly, he teaches them the Brazilian art of Capoeira, which is “dance fighting” where the combatants move rhythmically and use high-flying kicks. Since I had practiced this one particular maneuver many times over, I felt like this was the time to unveil it. This is the part of the story I never tell to interviewers. I circled a little to the left, planted one hand on the ground, swung my legs over my head, and performed the marquee Capoeira cartwheel kick. This move has no basis in reality. Until I returned to the standing position and was kicked in the solar plexus, I thought it was completely legit. After that kick, I went into panic mode, took down the smaller fighter, and was promptly choked unconscious, as he explained, “That was Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.”
Movies just couldn’t cut it anymore, and although Jason Bourne still Aikidos his way through a hallway full of gun toting Agent #3’s, we all know now what we have to do. Even the kids these days have a Chuck Liddell action figure, so we all know what a real fight looks like. It’s not that those movies aren’t entertaining. They are, it’s just now we all know we have to suspend our disbelief all that much more in order to enjoy Jackie Chan fighting off an entire room full of thugs by himself. Nowadays, the educated masses on real hand-to-hand combat have to understand that the art of movie fighting is just that, the ART of movie fighting. This makes it no less art than the ART of mixed martial arts, so we can still enjoy ourselves, or be a stick in the mud like Chael Sonnen, who said he disliked Inglourious Basterds because it was “historically inaccurate—you can’t have Hitler die in the movie!” Whoops, spoiler alert.
“Banana whey, banana whey”—back to my Only the Strong moment. I woke up in my backyard, staring up at the tree branches, and it was eye opening on many levels. I realized my whole childhood was wasted on action movies that gave me a false idea of what fighting was. What it didn’t do was lessen the beauty and glory of hand-to-hand combat for me. Although the moves were not the same or nearly as flashy as the jumping spin kicks that JCVD did to finish Bolo off, the story of coming from a negative place and fighting your way to glory rang out to me in a way that can touch a young child in a way only a hot teacher should. I also realized that since the smaller, weaker guy had won that afternoon with a variety of techniques, I had to strike out on my own The Quest (a.k.a. Bloodsport 2.0 where JCVD has to fight in a tournament to win a giant gold dragon) and learn the techniques to make me the best in the world. Quite the ambition for an impoverished high school student, but since I had been indoctrinated by these glorious violent spectacles, it was that much easier for me to ascertain the reality of fighting my way to the top.
I struck out on my journey early, found a Mister Miyagi—a black ex-army guy named Ses, who was a kickboxer turned Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructional tape watcher. He was intensely enthusiastic about what we called “Vale Tudo” since “MMA” wasn’t close to being coined yet, and wasn’t even technically legal yet. Despite that, they had the Virginia Full Contact Fights in Virginia Beach, and after a few months of training, I learned of my “Bolo”—my sworn enemy, the sinister, shadowy figure I was to meet in combat the same day as my senior prom. I did a training montage and practiced while a 1980’s-style generic rock song wailed, and just as the guitar solo wailed, the volume went down, and there I was, at the arena, prepared for combat in my black Vale Tudo shorts and wrestling shoes, not sure exactly what the hell I was going to do. I stood across the ring from the jiu jitsu blue belt, who was adorned in his blue gi, with a menacing look on his face. I remember thinking I had never even seen a live blue belt, and had my moment when JCVD shows worry on his face, but then the music changed and my face shifted to determination. I’d like to write the rest of the story with glorious string music in which we battled back and forth, but that would be lies. I was way too nervous to take any chances with a jump kick of any kind. I just went out, took him down, and pot-shotted him for eight minutes. Yes, eight. Those were the rules. Oh yeah, no punches to the face on the ground either. This made it extremely difficult for a kid who knew three submissions to finish the fight.
After the fight, I realized that this shadowy figure wasn’t shadowy at all. He was just a fellow mixed martial artist who truly appreciated the art and wanted to test his skills, without any subplot about kidnapping my girlfriend or putting my best friend in a coma. It was another eye-opener that allowed me to fight much more relaxed my next fight. I also became aware that it wasn’t only about who was the most savvy fighter; there were so many politics involved before you even got into the arena of combat that I thought about giving up the sport entirely—but what kept me in was the fact that there was still a story to be told and the potential for glory.
I’m still avoiding the Military Police who want to take me back to America, making my own glorious montages and chasing my own golden dragon, hoping I can get past the little guy that does monkey style, listening to my sensei, and taking care that no one throws dust in my eyes in between rounds. I’m so thankful for all those movies, because they made me who I am today—a martial artist. Despite their over-the-top fight sequences, they got the FEELING right, perhaps they just haven’t made the right movie yet.